We live in the age of distraction. Yet one of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that your brightest future hinges on your ability to pay attention to the present.
We all want to be happy. But we have preconceived notions or beliefs about what needs to happen in our lives before we can be happy. Maybe we need to get that dream job. Or we need to have a million dollars in the bank. Or maybe we need to have the body of our dreams. Or we need the perfect relationship in order to be happy.
Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. “We’re living in a world that contributes in a major way to mental fragmentation, disintegration, distraction, decoherence,” says Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace. We’re always doing something, and we allow little time to practice stillness and calm.
When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We don’t appreciate the living present because our “monkey minds,” as Buddhists call them, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
What if I told you that you don’t need any of those things in order to be happy in your life and that you can be happy today? The key to happiness is learning how to be happy right now, while you work on achieving your goals, instead of waiting until you’ve achieved those goals to be happy.
To avoid worrying about the future, focus on the present (savoring)
In her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend who, whenever she sees a beautiful place, exclaims in a near panic, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!” “It takes all my persuasive powers,” writes Gilbert, “to try to convince her that she is already here.”
Often, we’re so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what’s happening right now. We sip coffee and think, “This is not as good as what I had last week.” We eat a cookie and think, “I hope I don’t run out of cookies.”
Instead, relish or luxuriate in whatever you’re doing at the present moment—what psychologists call savoring. “This could be while you’re eating a pastry, taking a shower, or basking in the sun. You could be savoring a success or savoring music,” explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. “Usually it involves your senses.”
When subjects in a study took a few minutes each day to actively savor something they usually hurried through—eating a meal, drinking a cup of tea, walking to the bus—they began experiencing more joy, happiness, and other positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms, Schueller found.
Why does living in the moment make people happier—not just at the moment they’re tasting molten chocolate pooling on their tongue, but lastingly? Because most negative thoughts concern the past or the future. As Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” The hallmark of depression and anxiety is catastrophizing—worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet and might not happen at all. Worry, by its very nature, means thinking about the future—and if you hoist yourself into awareness of the present moment, worrying melts away.
The flip side of worrying is ruminating, thinking bleakly about events in the past. And again, if you press your focus into the now, rumination ceases. Savoring forces you into the present, so you can’t worry about things that aren’t there.
Stop Resisting What You Can’t Control
Stop resisting the things in your life that you can’t control and aren’t the way that you want them to be. Stop worrying about what other people do or say. Start accepting things for how they are, regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong. Accept it as a fact.
Let’s say that you are frustrated because a work colleague isn’t doing what you think they should be doing. The more you think about that situation, the more frustrated you get. You give them feedback. Maybe you argue with them. But the situation doesn’t improve or maybe it gets even worse.
So you have a choice — you can keep resisting or you can accept the situation without judgement. You simply acknowledge it as a fact. There is no right or wrong. It’s just the current reality. When you do this, the resistance starts to melt away and the negative emotions inside your head and heart also start to disappear.
Identify one situation where you feel you have some resistance and simply accept that situation for what it is.
Accept 100% Responsibility For Your Life
If we want to be happy, then we have to stop blaming others for what happens in our lives. We need to stop seeing ourselves as victims. I have a family member who I love very much, but she is constantly blaming other people and situations for everything in her life that she’s not happy with. She sees herself as a victim and feels helpless about changing things.
In order to be happy, we have to take full responsibility for everything that happens in our life. When we take full responsibility, we take back control of our life and start to acknowledge that our thoughts and actions create the results in our life, not other people or situations. When we take back control of our life, we stop being victims. Instead we feel empowered to start creating a better life for ourselves.
Be honest with yourself, are you accepting full responsibility for what happens in your life?
If you want to know how to live in the moment, you just have to take a look in the mirror and smile. Smile — it can influence how you feel.
Scientific American Mind magazine reports that making an emotional face influences how we feel. The magazine adds that there is an association in our mind between how we feel and how we react. If we feel happy, we smile. If we smile, it makes us feel happy. Our face communicates our state of mind to others and to ourselves. So smile — it will make you happier and help you appreciate life in the moment.
To make the most of time, lose track of it (flow)
Perhaps the most complete way of living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you’re so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you. Flow embodies an apparent paradox: How can you be living in the moment if you’re not even aware of the moment? The depth of engagement absorbs you powerfully, keeping attention so focused that distractions cannot penetrate. You focus so intensely on what you’re doing that you’re unaware of the passage of time. Hours can pass without you noticing.
Flow is an elusive state. As with romance or sleep, you can’t just will yourself into it—all you can do is set the stage, creating the optimal conditions for it to occur.
The first requirement for flow is to set a goal that’s challenging but not unattainable—something you have to marshal your resources and stretch yourself to achieve. The task should be matched to your ability level—not so difficult that you’ll feel stressed, but not so easy that you’ll get bored. In flow, you’re firing on all cylinders to rise to a challenge.
To set the stage for flow, goals need to be clearly defined so that you always know your next step. “It could be playing the next bar in a scroll of music, or finding the next foothold if you’re a rock climber, or turning the page if you’re reading a good novel,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first defined the concept of flow. “At the same time, you’re kind of anticipating.”
You also need to set up the task in such a way that you receive direct and immediate feedback; with your successes and failures apparent, you can seamlessly adjust your behavior. A climber on the mountain knows immediately if his foothold is secure; a pianist knows instantly when she’s played the wrong note.
As your attentional focus narrows, self-consciousness evaporates. You feel as if your awareness merges with the action you’re performing. You feel a sense of personal mastery over the situation, and the activity is so intrinsically rewarding that although the task is difficult, action feels effortless.
Practice Daily Gratitude
No matter how bad we think our problems are, you can almost guarantee that there’s someone out there with much bigger problems than us. You may have heard the saying “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet”. We need to be grateful for everything we have in our lives and practicing daily gratitude is a great way to train our minds to have an attitude of gratitude.
One technique for doing this is called “3 good things”, where every night, you simply write down three things that went well that day and casually reflect on why they happened. According to a study conducted by Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson (2005), people who performed this daily exercise for a week, were happier and less depressed at the one-month follow up.
So start making your “3 good things” list today.
It’s much harder than it sounds, but try to remember that worrying today won’t change what happens tomorrow. Every second you spend in worry about the future is a second of the present wasted. Because worrying takes you out of this moment and transports you into the realm of future possibilities, it’s impossible to live in the moment and worry at the same time.
Instead, if circumstances are troubling, focus on ways you can solve an existing problem now or otherwise improve the current moment. Spending time focused on what may happen down the line robs you of fully experiencing what is happening now. Life in the moment moves quickly — don’t miss it.